We must organise – Claudia Jones: A Life in Exile

Claudia Jones (21 February 1915 – 24 December 1964) was an important figure in the British racial justice movement after being exiled from the US in 1955 because of her involvement in the Communist Party. Claudia Jones: A Life in Exile by Marika Sherwood (Lawrence Wishart, 2021) is the first book to chart the work of this visionary and pioneer, focusing on her time in Britain, where she fought against racial discrimination and set up the West Indian Gazette and an indoor carnival for Caribbean culture. 

To mark the beginning of Black History Month we are honouring the histories of radical Black feminist activism with an excerpt from Claudia Jones: A life in Exile. Sherwood’s biography gives fascinating insight into Jones’ role in different Black activist organisations amid the racist political climate and anti-Black violence of the late 1950s, which led to the Notting Hill riots in 1958:

 

The riots, perpetrated by whites on Blacks, which erupted during the summer of 1958, were most concentrated in the city of Nottingham, and the Notting Hill area of the west London borough of Kensington. The causes of the riots have been much discussed, but no firm conclusions have yet been reached. However, it is likely that racist organisations active in the area, such as Oswald Mosley’s White Defence League, the National Labour Party, the League of Empire Loyalists, the Union Movement and the British branch of the Ku Klux Klan played an active role in fomenting racial antipathy and in scapegoating the Black population for Britain’s social ills. One example of the leaflets being distributed in those years urged whites to: ‘Take action now. Protect your jobs. Stop coloured immigration. Houses for white people not coloured immigrants. A square deal for the negro in his own country. People of Kensington act now. Your country is worth fighting for. Fight with the Union Movement.’1 

Claudia takes action: a response to the riots

There is no record of Claudia undertaking any independent political activities before the riots. It is therefore possible that it was what she considered an inadequate response by her alma mater, the Communist Party, which led her to participate and organise outside of it.2 However, one must remember that even for Claudia there were only twenty-four hours in the day and keeping the Gazette going must have taken up many of those hours. How much time she could devote to any of the organisations is problematic, but as Notting Hill activist George Clarke told me, ‘her advice and comment were as important as her actual activities’.3

Of the many organisations which sprang up in Notting Hill, there were two which were to last for some time. Claudia was associated with both, but what role she played in their formation is not clear. Probably the first was the Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (AACP), clearly modelled by its founder, Amy Ashwood Garvey, on her US experience with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The local paper, the political activist 99 Kensington News (26/9/1958, p7) described Amy as ‘plump, jolly ... Recently returned from Ghana and her dress and furniture are from there ... Founder of the Afro-Centre, where she plans to establish a vocational school’. While the exact founding date is unknown, the AACP was certainly in existence by September 1958, when Dr Carl La Corbiniere, the deputy Prime Minister of the West Indies Federation, toured the riot-torn parts of Notting Hill. A meeting for him to discuss the situation with fellow West Indians was held at Mrs Garvey’s home at 1 Bassett Road.4 Claudia, clearly a friend and colleague of Amy’s, whom she well might have met in the USA, was the general secretary of the Association.5 According to the Metropolitan police reports, the AACP was ‘controlled by the Communist Party and fellow travellers ... the leading personality of the AACP and the United Defence Committee against Racial Discrimination is Claudia Jones, a West Indian communist’. The AACP was still in existence in 1959 as Pansy Jeffrey, the local borough council’s special social worker attached to the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, reported on contacts with it that year.6

Amy Ashwood Garvey could not by any stretch of the imagination be counted either as a communist or even as a serious fellow traveller. Though of the other officers, Claudia and Manchanda were communists, neither David Pitt (who was soon to become a Labour borough councillor) nor Fenner Brockway, a Labour MP, had any connections with the Communist Party. Thus, the Metropolitan Police’s report is far from accurate. It is interesting to note that the police knew exactly who Claudia was and described her as ‘West Indian’. The United Defence Committee was probably the sub-committee set up by the IRFCC at its inaugural meeting (see below). 

The other organisation that managed to outlast the immediate months of rioting was the Coloured People’s Progressive Association (CPPA). It was founded by Frances Ezzrecco, a Black woman from London’s East End, who was married to jazz drummer Don Ezzrecco. According to her own testimony, as she was coming home from work one evening during the disturbances, a gang of white youths chased her. ‘When I got home I said to my husband: “That is it! I have had enough! We must organise our people against these attacks”... a group of us got together and the Coloured People’s Progressive Association was formed. It was opened to white people as well as coloured ...’7 Whether Claudia was one of the founding group, Frances does not state. The Association co-operated with other groups and was very active locally. For example, in March 1959 it co-sponsored a public meeting, ‘How Can Coloured Workers Unite to Fight Unemployment’; in July it sent a deputation to see the Kensington mayor regarding ‘housing, slum clearance, police, play space and other social needs’ and in September it sent a delegation to join the Movement for Colonial Freedom’s Mass Demonstration of Inter-Racial Friendship.8 The CPPA survived at least until 1961, when the Kensington News reported that it was involved in mediating between landlords and tenants.9

Our people had been living in England peacefully for years; now that peace was shattered when homes were stoned, windows broken and families threatened. The Black community panicked and wanted to return home where they would be safe, and leave England before things got worse. Claudia found a situation in which she was needed and was most effective. She was a catalyst; she brought people together and could inspire, inform and mobilise them. She was able to analyse situations, and through her experience and organising skills was able to advise us on how to respond to the British Government. She came up with positive suggestions to calm fears ... (Pearl Connor at the 1996 Symposium.)

At about 1am on the morning of 17 May Kelso Cochrane, an Antiguan carpenter, was murdered by six (still) unknown white assailants on a Notting Hill street. At a meeting convened by the Committee of African Organisations in response to the unprovoked murder, a new organisation, the Inter-Racial Friendship Co-ordinating Council (IRFCC) was formed.10 At the meeting it was decided to send an open letter to the Prime Minster, stating that ‘coloured citizens of the UK have lost confidence in the ability of the law enforcing agencies to protect them’. The meeting demanded that the Government should close ‘racial centres’ and pass a law making incitement to racial violence illegal. It was decided to seek a meeting with the Home Secretary to discuss the situation and the group’s demands. The Government’s response was worse than negative: the White Defence League was given permission to hold a rally in Trafalgar Square and a month later it refused to ratify the International Labour Office’s Convention on Racial Discrimination.11 

The Central Executive Committee of the IRFCC was elected in July: the chair was Amy Ashwood Garvey; Claudia Jones and Eleanor Ettlinger acted as co-vice-chairs; J. Eber, A. Manchanda and Aloa Bashorun shared secretarial duties; Pearl Connor was the treasurer; and Frances Ezzrecco was a member of the committee.12 Though the IRFCC’s official address was 374 Gray’s Inn Road, which was also the address of the Movement for Colonial Freedom (MCF), it also met at Amy Ashwood Garvey’s house and at 200 Gower Street – the surgery of Dr David Pitt – which was a popular informal meeting place.13 

The aims of the Council included ‘respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for ALL without distinctions as to race, colour, sex, language or religion; to oppose all forms of discrimination; to co-operate with other organisations to achieve [these] aims’.14 The police report adds ‘to educate the public on racial discrimination’ to the IRFCC aims.15 West Indian ‘establishment’ figures quickly decided to ‘dissociate’ themselves from the Council. At a meeting with the Home Office and the Colonial Office, West Indies Federation Deputy Prime Minister Dr Carl La Corbiniere and West Indian Commissioner Garnet Gordon stated that they saw the Council as an ‘African-dominated organisation with strong political affiliations ... The activities of political groups are laying the foundations of future trouble ... It is essential to time this action [of dissociation] carefully if the council was to be discredited’.16 Among those listed as signing the few remaining IRFCC attendance lists in existence are Ranjana Ash, Eleanor Ettlinger, John Eber, and McDonald Moses, the public relations officer of the CPPA.17 The statement of accounts up to June 1959 shows how wide was the membership of the Council. Member organisations, or those which had paid their dues, were the MCF, the CPPA, the Committee of African Organisations, West Indians Students & Workers, the AACP, the Hornsey & Islington Inter-Racial Group, the St John Society and the West Indian Federal Labour Party. Among the contributors were D.N. Pritt, Ivor Montagu, the Communist Party, the Nyasaland African Congress, the South African Freedom Association and the West Indian United Association.

Without full documentation there are only glimpses of the IRFCC’s activities. Following the open letter to the Prime Minister outlined above, on 27 May 1959 a deputation which included Claudia spent one and a half hours discussing their concerns with three Home Office officials. The delegation restated their demands: speedy action against racist propaganda; the trebling of the police force in the Notting Hill area; and, if necessary, new legislation to prevent incitement to race-hatred. The demands were necessitated by ‘inactivity by the authorities in the face of organised attempts to stir up racial hatred by fascist groups’. The establishment of its own defence organisation was to be considered if the Home Office failed to act. The deputation also proposed the appointment of a Select Committee ‘with both white and coloured members, to go into the whole question of the special problems of districts such as Notting Hill where there are large numbers of coloured residents’. According to other reports the deputation also asked for the removal of policemen ‘with known racial bias’, and that the proposed legislation should deem racial discrimination illegal. The senior Home Office official who received the delegates assured them that the ‘government was satisfied that the police were taking necessary action ... It was unlikely that West Indians would be allowed to form their own defence organisations.’18 

However, R.A. Butler, the Home Secretary, only promised to ‘watch the situation and encourage “effective integration and consider recruiting coloured policemen ... and slum clearance”’.19 When pressed in Parliament, Butler condemned the fomentation of racial discrimination, but denied the need for a special enquiry. 

Every effort will be made to encourage effective integration … The police discharge their duties impartially … Any activities being undertaken calculated to lead to a breach of the peace the police have the powers to deal with ... To take action against [racial discrimination] might not be effective. That is why I do not want to step into that without a great deal more consideration. 

Butler’s contacts with the media ‘indicate that it [the Press] is willing to take a responsible view of this matter’. After meeting with police chiefs he announced that he was satisfied with their ‘handling of the situation in Notting Hill and elsewhere’. The ‘root of racial tension’, according to the police chiefs, lay in ‘restlessness among young people and social malaise’.20 

Within a few days of Cochrane’s murder the Council sponsored a memorial meeting for him at St Pancras Town Hall. The three major political parties and forty organisations were represented. The speakers included Dr David Pitt, Dr La Corbiniere and Eslanda Goode Robeson.21 The Council even arranged for a portrait to be painted especially for the meeting. The un-named CPPA spokesperson described the growing racial tension in the area, the ‘alarm felt by the coloured people’ and the ‘allegations of hostility by the police’.22

A few days later, on 1 June, there was an IRFCC/CPPA-sponsored vigil outside 10 Downing Street to ‘express a lack of confidence in arrangements for the security of coloured people’. Those participating in the vigil were given placards. Two of these read ‘There is only one race, the human race’ and ‘Racial discrimination is illegal’; a third bore the portrait of the murdered Kelso Cochrane. Frances Ezzrecco, participating in the vigil, is reported as saying ‘We want to know who will stop talking and do something’.23

Endnotes

  1. The Guardian, 2 September 1958, p5. The Union Movement was also headed by Oswald Mosley. See also Scobie, Black Britannia, note 5, chapters 14 & 15; Edward Pilkington, Beyond the Mother Country, I.B. Taurus, London 1988. The White Defence League was set up in 1959 by Colin Jordan, a schoolteacher from Coventry. (Cutting from Daily Mail, 31 March 1959 in PRO: CO1031/2946.)

  2. The Party was not totally inactive: the local branches held a poster parade through the ‘troubled area’ denouncing racial hatred and discrimination, Kensington News, 12 September 1958, p6.

  3. Telephone interview with George Clarke, London, 17 July 1997.

  4. Kensington News, 19 September 1958.

  5. A. Manchanda was the first assistant secretary; David Pitt and Fenner Brockway were respectively first and second vice presidents. Claudia is listed as secretary in two lists of organisations dated 1959. PRO:CO1031/2420 & 2545.

  6. Metropolitan Police Report 28 May 1959, PRO: HO325/9; Kensington Borough Council Minutes 8 December 1959.

  7. Hinds, note 19, p140. According to the biographers of Notting Hill ‘activist’ Michael de Freitas, the CPPA was wrecked by its own vice-chair, De Freitas (later known as Michael X), who caused a devastating internal split by objecting to the numbers of ‘white’ members. See D. Humphrey & D. Tindall, False Messiah, Hart-Davis, MacGibbon, London 1977.

  8. The co-sponsor was Peter Fryer’s The Newsletter – advertisement in Tribune, 13 March 1959, p3; Kensington News, 19 September 1958, p1; 3 July 1959, p1.

  9. Kensington News, 13 January 1961; in its May 1961 newsletter, the Standing Conference of West Indian Organisations reported that Frances Ezzrecco was serving on its prisons committee.

  10. The CAO’s members were: Africa Forum, Africa League, African Society, African Research Publication, Gambian Cultural Society, Gambian Students’ Union, Ghana Union of GB, Kenya Student Association, NASSAU (Ghana), National Council of Nigeria and Cameroon, ZAPU, National Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Portuguese Territories, National Union of Kamrun Students, UNIP, WASU, West African United Front, Namibian National Party. (SOAS: MCF Papers, Box 28, AFF74). Kwesi Armah, political attaché to the Ghana High Commission, was chairman in 1960; Benjamin Machyo of Uganda replaced him in 1961 when Armah was appointed High Commissioner. In October 1960 Nkrumah gave £17,500 for a new headquarters for the CAO; 3 Collingham Gardens – Africa Unity House – was eventually bought for £42,000, West Africa, 22 October 1960, p1209; 19 November 1960, p1322; 4 November 1961, p1233; 11 November 1961, p1262.

  11. The Times, 19 May 1959; The Guardian, 22 March 1959, 1&27 June 1959, p2; Reynold’s News, 24 May 1959, p1; Kensington News, 22 May 1959, p1.

  12. Unless otherwise indicated, information on Claudia’a activities is from the Langford Collection. There is a discrepancy between the list of officers in the Collection and in the list proposed by the police spies in Special Branch Report 10 November 1959, PRO: HO325/9. It is interesting to note that these three organisations were led by women. Nothing is known of Eleanor Ettlinger; John Eber was the secretary of the Movement for Colonial Freedom; Aloa Bashorun was the chair of the CPPA and secretary of the Committee of African Organisations.

  13. ‘Dr David Pitt made his premises in Gower Street available for meetings … He held open political surgeries to advise and help those of our people struggling to survive.’ (Pearl Connor at the 1996 Symposium.) The Movement for Colonial Freedom, one of whose founders was activist/ campaigner for racial justice and MP (later Lord) Fenner Brockway, was eventually controlled by the Communist Party.

  14. IRFCC Constitution in Langford Collection.

  15. Special Branch Report, 10 November 1959, PRO: HO325/9.

  16. Note on the meeting with the British Caribbean Association (c. 8 June1959), PRO: CO1031/2541. The BCA was formed at the House of Commons in February 1959.

  17. Ranjana Ash was a Communist Party member. McDonald Moses, having completed his studies at Ruskin College, returned to his native Trinidad in late 1959 and resumed a distinguished life in trade union work.

  18. Colonial Freedom News, June 1959, pp3-5; The Guardian, 27 May 1959, p2; Kensington News, 5 June 1959, p1; The Times, 22 May 1957, p7; 27 May 1957, p10; 28 May 1957, p12; Daily Worker, 27 May 1959, 1&28 May 1959, p1. Social worker Pansy Jeffrey, in her evidence to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Race Relations and Immigration, stated that ‘From 1959 to 1961 we at the Citizens’ Advice Bureau found it difficult to believe the behaviour of the police which appeared from the stories told us by callers who came to us for advice. Then it began to seem that there must be some substance to these stories’ (p234). The Government’s Committee on West Indian Immigrants at its meeting on 21 May 1959 noted that ‘West Indians feel lack of sympathy of the police ... complaints regarding the police bring no action’. The Home Office representative at the meeting reiterated the HO’s belief that the ‘hooliganism of the youth’ was to blame for the riots. PRO: CO1031/2946.

  19. Kensington News, 12 June 1959, p1.

  20. See The Times, 5 June 1959, p7; West Africa, 13 June 1959, p573; The Times, 11 June 1959, p6. Such views will sound quite familiar to readers of the reports of the 1998 enquiry into the murder of Black teenager Stephen Lawrence by a gang of white youths in south London.

  21. Ruth Glass & H. Pollins, Newcomers, Centre for Urban Studies, London 1960, p167; Colonial Freedom News, June 1959, p5; The Guardian, 29 June 1959, p20.

  22. Kensington News, 29 May 1959, p1.

  23. Kensington News, 29 May 1959, p6; Kensington Post, 6 May 1959; The Times, 2 June 1959, p7.


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